Thoughts on Improving Online Communities

Many months ago I picked up a fantastic book at a neighborhood flea market: “Community Building on the Web : Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities” by Amy Jo Kim.

Flipping through, the screenshots of a very early eBay.com and iVillage signalled that this title was dated, but the topic was right in my wheelhouse, so I picked it up.

Published in 2000, this book is 20 years old, but having spent some time with it, I can say that an astonishing amount of its advice and recommendations on community building are still applicable today. What struck me moreso was how many of it’s suggestions are not reflected in the current market. Let me share an example:

Think of all of the online communities you are a part of. When you joined, did you have to go through any welcoming/inroductory process, or were you just dropped right into the thick of it?


It’s an important point. In any real life community situation, you’re going to feel most comfortable joining and participating when you’ve been welcomed in and ‘shown the ropes’. Alternatively, if you were to be dropped into an environment that you had no context for and in which you did not know any other people, you’d probably feel a bit awkward or out of place. In a real life scenario, you’d probably be likely to leave and at worst, not become a contributor to that community.

Most online community platforms don’t allow/encourage an onboarding procedure, even though the stakes are much higher. When an online user is not able to sync their expectations with those of the community, their anonymity affords them the option to participate in ways that are inappropriate. I know there are online community managers that are aware of this, and I have seen processes along these lines take shape, but on a large scale, there is no standard of welcoming.

This made me think- if I were to create a community building platform in the present day, what features should it have?

  • Community builders should be able to create an onboarding flow that sets expectations for what is acceptable behavior. Onboarding for most companies is about getting someone to buy into a product/vision/service with their money or eyeballs. For communities, I think a good onboarding is not about extracting more from the user, but providing them with something of value that sets the stage for what is expected of community members. That could be a warm welcome or initiation of some kind, but I think it should be an experience, not a product or something of monetary value.
  • Community members that see innappropriate behavior from another user should be shown that reporting has positive impact. Sometimes a lack of action from the community management devalues the act of reporting and discourages its future use.
  • Keep the moderation process transparent with tools like: (1) a moderation blotter that documents moderations similar to how a police blotter documents crime (2) a warning at the time of content creation that lets the user know if the content is seen as inappropriate by any of the moderation algorithms being employed. This provides an opportunity to correct their mistakes, point out algorithmic mistakes, or (in the worst case) provide insight to how the algorithms are being fooled (3) Display a moderator precense through their positive contributions and moderation actions. Moderators should not exist solely to remove bad content, but to encourage positive content.
  • Highlight the best contributions and conversations to encourage more of their kind.
  • A high performing search engine that keeps content+conversations alive as long as it they are relevant, to discourage duplicate conversations.

I’ll add to the list as I think on this further…

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